Authors: Mia Carson
I allowed myself a thoughtful pause as Lexi looked at me with a sympathetic frown, then continued. “After the divorce, my sister and I moved with my mom to Pasadena where we had this amazing cook for a while, Anatoli. He was a lively guy and loved teaching me various dishes and culinary tips. And it just took off from there. Now, I love cooking and experimenting whenever I have time. For some reason, it helps me unwind and straighten out my thoughts…something about working with my hands.”
I took a deep breath and looked down at my plate, surprised by how much I’d opened up to Lexi. I’d never talked like this with other women, but this stunning young lady made me feel comfortable and easy-going enough to share who I really was, even personal stuff like my parents’ divorce.
She thought for a moment before speaking. “That’s so cool you like to cook and are clearly quite skilled at it—it’s not a typical guy hobby. You know, the way cooking makes you feel clear-headed and relaxed, that’s how I feel when I’m surfing or writing. It’s funny how we all have our different, unique ways to relax and express ourselves.”
Lexi spoke with a quiet passion and with such intelligence that I fell for her even more as we sat in my suite and shared dinner. I could really see myself with this young woman in a serious, long-term relationship—for the rest of my life.
“That’s so true,” I said. “And I think it’s really cool you surf… not your typical girl hobby. It’s kind of badass, actually.” I grinned and added, “Maybe you can teach me, since now you owe me for the cooking lesson.”
“Maybe.” She bit back a smile. “Tomorrow, I might be persuaded to help you out… If we’re not too busy working, that is.”
I swallowed a bite of pasta with the flavorful shrimp and replied, “Oh, I’ll make time for a surfing lesson with you, you can be sure of that.”
We ate in comfortable silence for a few more minutes, both almost done, then I asked, “So, what about your family? Do they live in L.A.? Any siblings?” I actually knew the basics from the private detective I’d hired, but I wanted to hear about Lexi’s family from her own lips.
I saw a brief look of sadness cross her face before she smiled and replied, “Yes and yes. Both my dad and younger brother live in L.A. Sean’s fifteen, an amazing soccer player, and he lives with my dad three blocks from my apartment. Dad is… um, in a wheelchair. He has MS, and my mom passed away when I was eight.”
Lexi hid the hurt she felt about both her mom’s death and her dad’s situation well, though I could see a deep pain flicker below the surface of her expression. “I’m sorry, Lexi. That must be hard to deal with… Losing your mom and your dad’s illness. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know, okay?” I put a gentle hand over her forearm for a moment and removed it without lingering, wanting my touch to be the genuine show of caring it was.
She mustered a half-smile and shrugged. “Thank you, but actually, being able to put my dad on the insurance has been perfect. We’ve already made an appointment with one of the top MS neurologists in L.A. And my mom… well, not much you can do about that.” Her attempt at dark humor made me admire her strength in dealing with these hardships. “Enough about my family issues… How old’s your sister? Are you guys close?” Lexi asked before eating the last bite of her pasta.
“She’s right around your age, actually—twenty-two, and we’re definitely close. We run together on the beach just about every Sunday, have lunch, and we always have dinner with our mom in Pasadena on Sunday evenings. It’s tradition.” I moved to clear our plates, walked towards the kitchen, and said, “Can I interest you in some chocolate-covered strawberries I bought for dessert?”
Lexi’s face lit up, and she nodded. “Are you kidding? Anything with chocolate involved—how decadent.”
Moments later, I put a bowl of the dark chocolate-dipped strawberries in the middle of the table, handed her a dessert plate, and poured the last of the Chianti into our glasses.
“You know, Braden,” Lexi suddenly said after she’d bitten into one of the succulent strawberries and licked her lips. I had to force myself to focus on her eyes and register her words. Fuck, I had to get her out of there after dessert.
She continued as she tilted her head at me. “You kind of surprise me. I always heard—from the media—and thought of you as this partying playboy, but these last few weeks, and talking with you tonight, there’s this whole other side to you. You’re much more than what the magazines and gossip TV shows say.”
I nodded slowly and finished my bite of strawberry. “Well, you can’t believe everything you hear—which, by the way, I’m surprised you read and watch those kinds of magazines and shows.” I flashed her a boyish grin and continued before she could defend herself. “Honestly? I know you might not believe me, but underneath it all, I’m not the chauvinistic pig my media image portrays.”
She quirked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything as she listened patiently. “I started that bad behavior when I was twenty-one and working more and more with my dad at Huntington Productions. He was—still is—a major playboy, and he’s actually traveling around Brazil right now.”
I could see Lexi thinking about what I’d said as she studied her wine. She held the stem in one hand and moved it in circles to make the Chianti twirl gently around the bowl of the glass. “So basically, you’re blaming your dad and using his behavior as a scapegoat for your own?” Her tone was casual, but she looked at me with a critical eye.
“I guess you’re right. Damn, you don’t cut a guy any slack, do you?” I half teased. She shrugged and smiled wryly but didn’t say anything, so I added, “Okay, I get it. I should take responsibility for my actions and not put it all on my dad. I do… I’m starting to regret the way I’ve acted, and I’m getting tired of this double life I’ve been leading with my real self that likes to hang with my family and my best friend Scott and cook, and my fake media-image self that hangs with assholes like Keith and treats women like playthings.”
I paused to polish off the rest of my wine as Lexi now watched me with big, serious eyes. I leaned forward and rested my forearms on the table, holding her gaze steadily with mine, full of sincerity. “The thing is, Lexi—and believe me when I say this—since I met you at my house last winter and treated you so horribly, I’ve been changing. I haven’t picked up random women or said anything degrading lately, and it’s because of you.”
I held her gaze to make sure she understood there was no joke in this statement, none whatsoever. I hadn’t planned to tell her any of this and reveal how she’d triggered this change in me, but with all the wine and the way the subject had come up, it felt like the right time. As I watched her face flush pink and her eyes blink rapidly, I wondered if I’d brought my feelings up too soon.
Lexi broke our gaze, finished the last swallow of her wine, and stood up. “I have to go,” she blurted as she gave me a semi-apologetic look and walked to the door.
I was by her side immediately as she opened the door, and I put a gentle hand on her arm. “Lexi, wait. I’m sorry if I said something wrong or if that was too much, but it’s the truth. I swear.”
Lexi stood in the hotel hallway and turned to face me. “Look, Braden, I want to believe you, and I’m happy you’re changing your behavior. But this is too personal for me, and I’m partly to blame for letting loose tonight.” She took a deep breath, and her eyes flashed with a strange mix of sadness and anger as she continued. “But, like we both agreed, our relationship should be strictly professional. So thank you for the amazing dinner and cooking lesson. I’ll see you for work tomorrow. Goodnight.”
She turned and marched straight down the hall to her room, and I barely had time to call out softly, “Goodnight, Lexi.”
The moment I closed and locked the door to my stunning ocean-view hotel suite, I tore off my clothes and plunged into a cool shower. Ugh, what was wrong with me? I was stronger than this, stronger than having a nice dinner with my gorgeous boss and letting my guard down, right?
I turned to face the oncoming stream of refreshingly cool water, closed my eyes, and ran my hands slowly down my face with the water. I needed to collect my thoughts and rein in the crazy hormones that raced around my entire body after the intimate dinner with Braden. He’d looked unbelievably hot in the most casual clothes I’d seen him in so far—dark wash jeans, black flip-flops, and a very snugly fitting black tee-shirt. The shirt showed off his solid torso and broad shoulders, not to mention the well-defined muscles in his arms. Braden’s face had that sexy five o’clock shadow with dark stubble, and his dirty-blond hair had the usual boyish, wind-blown look that made me want to run my fingers through it.
And holy shit, the man could cook like a professional, which undeniably added to his hotness, as well as adding to the depth of his personality. Who knew this supposed playboy was close with his mom and sister and liked to cook?
And what Braden had said at the end, about how he’d changed because of me? That had triggered a range of emotions from feeling pleased to skeptical, even terrified. I turned around under the shower, letting it run down my scalp, back, and legs as I tried to sort through these feelings.
If Braden was being one-hundred percent honest, that meant I had the power to change him, which both thrilled and scared me. To have that kind of influence over a man was incredibly overwhelming. Too much was at risk if the relationship didn’t work out. And there were so many reasons it might not work out between Braden and me. We were from entirely different classes, he was currently my boss, which complicated things, and there was the possibility he thought he’d changed his ways but wouldn’t be able to help drifting back to his old womanizing habits later on.
The possibility that Braden wasn’t being honest at all—was just saying sweet things as part of an elaborate scheme to get me to fall for him, have his way with me, and discard me afterwards like he did with the other women—was very real. It would be the ultimate challenge for him to get me in bed, and if he knew I was a virgin, he’d probably try so much harder.
I turned off the shower, wrapped myself in a fluffy white hotel towel, and started to blow-dry my hair. I sensed Braden wasn’t trying to play me and that he had told me the truth about his feelings, but I was still doubtful that I—or anyone else, for that matter—could ever truly change his bad habits. Since I liked him more and more on top of the intense physical draw I felt for him, I was worried he’d end up breaking my heart.
We worked all day overseeing the start of a beach shoot, from eight in the morning until nearly eight at night. Braden and I were civil to each other, nice but professional, but I felt an underlying tension between us and noticed how he stole lingering glances at me here and there throughout the day.
For dinner, Braden ordered amazing beans and rice with steak and fish platters for all to share. The shoot went well. I ran last-minute errands and watched the crew film the exciting chase scene along the water’s edge, which ended with a fight between Keith and the young leading lady, followed by a steamy make-out scene.
The area for the shoot had been blocked off, but groups of spectators had gathered on the edges to watch at different parts of the day. It had been fun and exhausting at the same time and hadn’t given me much time to think about the Braden situation—which was good, in my opinion. After we wrapped the scene, everyone dispersed, and I decided it was time to unwind with some surfing action.
Braden had gone off to talk with the director and some of the crew while I wandered down the boardwalk to buy a brand-new blue and aqua surfboard from a beach shop. It felt strange to be able to plunk down the money for a new board instead of having my family save for a year to buy me a used one, but with my new salary, I could afford such luxuries.
By the time I hit the waves, the beach and water were less crowded since the sun had dipped below the horizon and most beach-goers were off to dinner and parties. The sky was filled with rich pinks and oranges as I caught my first wave, a little one that curled on for a while. A huge, child-like grin spread across my face as the salty spray hit my face and the pure thrill of riding a wave rushed through my body.
My head felt considerably lighter and my body tingled from the exhilaration when I pulled myself out of the water and collapsed in the sand with my new board, tired but happy. The light was almost gone at this point, and the vibrant colors had faded into a blue-gray twilight. I could hear live music with a strong, intricate beat playing somewhere in the distance.
I closed my eyes for a moment and smiled. This moment after a good surf as I lay there on a beach in Rio on a Saturday night felt magical. If someone had told me I’d be in Brazil, all expenses paid, a month ago when I cleaned houses and struggled to pay my bills, student loans and help Sean and my dad financially, I’d never have believed it. Yet here I was, with a brand new surfboard and sporting a sexy new aqua bikini on a beautiful beach in Rio.
The deep rumble of a throat clearing caused me to jump out of my thoughts and open my eyes in surprise. My stomach turned when I saw the tall, muscular figure of a man standing over me, smiling down with his hair all tousled.
“Lexi,” Braden said. “I wondered where you went. How are the waves?”
I shot up to a sitting position and pushed to stand. I felt more than a little exposed in my bikini, even though he couldn’t possibly see me clearly in the dim light. I brushed the sand off my hands and legs and stood several feet away from him. “Hey, Braden. Yeah, the waves are fantastic—small, but it’s nice to have warm water for a change and not have to wear a wetsuit like back home.” I could hear myself rambling nervously and felt more than saw his eyes do a quick scan of my bikini-clad body.