S. C. Stephens is a bestselling author who enjoys spending every free moment she has creating stories that are packed with emotion and heavy on romance. She has been writing nonstop ever since the release of her debut novel, which received a great deal of praise from the literary world. In addition to writing, Stephens enjoys spending lazy afternoons in the sun reading fabulous novels, loading up her iPod with music to reduce writer s block, heading out to the movies, and spending quality time with her friends and family.
A few hours later, after a mandatory dinner with my father and the crew, I was finally back at the hotel. Collapsing onto the bed, I wondered if I had ever been this exhausted in all my life. Trailing my fingers along the pattern sewn into the quilt beneath me, I debated shutting off the light and trying to make a genuine attempt to sleep; if I wanted it bad enough, I could make it happen . . . right? The light switch was so far away, though, and there was no way I’d be able to stop replaying the video of my slide out that was running on constant repeat in my head. Whether it was light or dark in the room didn’t matter if my brain was wide awake. It didn’t even matter that my limbs were heavy with fatigue and all of my muscles were tired and aching. My brain wouldn’t stay silent, so there would be no real rest for me.
Letting out an annoyed groan, I managed to find the remote on the nightstand. Flicking on the TV, I prayed I might be able to find something that would partially entertain me, or at least distract me. Nothing did, though. All I could think about was the race. I wanted to be home, in my bed, surrounded by my things. Maybe if I were back to my regular routine, I could stop the never-ending replay of my body smacking the concrete, my bike hitting the wall.
We were leaving bright and early tomorrow morning to head back to Oceanside. I was ready to go home, yet reluctant too. I felt like my failure would be the talk of the track for a long time to come—both sides of the track—and I really didn’t want people talking about me, especially about my screwup. But I did want to get back to work; I wanted to begin preparations for the next race, in Wisconsin. God, I hoped that race was better than this one.
After flipping through every available channel at least six times, I turned the TV off. I needed something more engaging to keep my mind from drifting into dark, anxiety-ridden places. Forcing myself to get up, I grabbed my bag from where I’d flung it and dug around for my cell phone. Pulling up Nikki’s number, I texted: Can’t sleep. Are you up?
Her response was immediate. Yep! Just heading to the hot tub. Meet me in 20!
Frowning, I texted back: I didn’t pack a suit. She responded exactly how I thought she would. So? Go commando.
Laughing, I shook my head as I texted her that I’d see her soon. Her parting words were Bring wine!
Rolling my eyes, I looked over at the items available for purchase on top of the minibar. There was a bottle of wine among the chocolate, nuts, condoms, and toiletries. This hotel thought of everything. Shrugging, I grabbed the bottle of wine, a corkscrew, and a couple of glasses. I didn’t usually drink, but I might have a half glass tonight. Maybe a few sips would make me tired enough to go to sleep. Setting the wine on the bed, I debated what I could wear into the hot tub. Skinny-dipping wasn’t exactly my idea of relaxing. Grabbing a robe from the bathroom, I decided my bra and panties would suffice. They covered more than a lot of bikinis anyway.
We were staying at a hotel near the ocean. It was a pretty nice place, with beachside fire pits and saltwater pools, but my favorite thing about it was the ultra-private pool and hot tub on the roof. With the crashing waves of the surf nearby and the twinkling lights of Daytona in the distance, it was a spectacular display. Just what I needed to unwind. Hopefully the hot water didn’t aggravate my scrapes too badly. It would be worth it, though.
Clenching the wine bottle in one hand and the glasses and corkscrew in the other, I made my way up to the roof. When I got there, I looked around for Nikki, but she was nowhere to be seen. Not too surprising.
Figuring she’d get here when she got here, I headed for the hot tub. I could almost feel the stress releasing from my overtaxed muscles as I spotted the softly lit tub nestled in the corner of the rooftop oasis. As I approached the steaming water, I noticed a dark head just barely above the surface. Wow, guess Nikki had beaten me here after all.
“Hey, girlie,” I said, setting down the wine and shucking off my robe. “I brought some wine for you, as requested. And just so you know, if Dad chews my ass out for the room service bill, I’m totally throwing you under the bus.”
The wet head swiveled around to look up at me and my heart sank. It wasn’t Nikki. A slow smile spread across Hayden’s face as he sat up higher in the water, eyeing the lacy bra and underwear I was using as swimwear. Thankfully, they were black, and not a pale color that would show him way more than I ever wanted to. I quickly scanned the rooftop, but we were alone. Horribly and completely alone.
“Well, look who it is,” he mused. “Lucky number twenty-two. Are you here for that scratch, sweetheart? I’m a little worn out after today, but don’t you worry, I’m sure I can still give you what you so politely requested.” He added that damn aggravating wink on the end that made me want to dunk him under the water and hold him there a few minutes. Just until he passed out. I swear.
Flustered and caught off guard, all I could think to say was, “You’re not Nikki.” I felt my cheeks flame as his gaze lingered over my curves, but I stubbornly refused to cover myself up. I worked hard for my sport and it showed in my body. There was nothing on me that I had to be embarrassed about . . . plus, I’d shaved earlier today, so it was all good.
Hayden seemed amused by my response. “No, I’m not.” Bringing his arms up to the edge of the tub, he turned to face me. As he propped his chin on his arms, water droplets beaded and ran down his skin like little racetracks. There was something about steaming water and an attractive man that was exceedingly erotic, but Hayden was not what I wanted to be looking at right now. This was supposed to be relaxing girl time.
“So…” he said with a smile. “Do you and Nikki often meet up for lingerie hot-tubbing after a race? If so, I’m going to have to stay at your hotel more often.”
Familiar irritation pricked my skin, but I somehow managed to keep my expression even. “I didn’t realize you were staying at this hotel. I figured you’d be at some sleazy motel that charged by the hour, along with the rest of the Bennetis. Seems more your speed than anice place like this.”
His jade eyes darkened, and I knew I’d struck a nerve. Good. I shouldn’t be the only one annoyed, and if he was going to make me sound like a spoiled princess, then I would make him sound like he was fresh from the gutter. And considering where I’d first met him, I probably wasn’t too far off the mark anyway.
Hayden opened his mouth to speak, but I didn’t wait for him to get even so much as a sound out. Making sure we were still alone and no one was here to witness me sharing a could-be-intimate moment with a Benneti, I gingerly placed a foot into the water opposite him. He wasn’t going to chase me away from here with vile words, no matter who he raced for—I needed this too badly after today.
If Hayden had been about to say something, he clearly changed his mind; he was silent as stone as he watched me sink into the water. The searing heat was heaven on my chilled muscles, and even though the raw places stung, a soft groan escaped me. Closing my eyes, I laid my head back on the tile surrounding the tub. Hayden cleared his throat, and I heard soft splashes in the water as he adjusted his position. Cracking an eye open, I saw that he was intensely studying me, and in the silence of our staredown, that crackling energy began to resurface. In a heartbeat, the water suddenly became an extension of him, and the gentle waves were like his fingers caressing me all over, all at once. It was heady and intoxicating, and it made my breath quicken and my body tingle in delicious anticipation. Damn.
I was a millisecond away from getting out of the water… but . . . the near-boiling temperature was so incredible, I didn’t want to give up the luxury yet, not for my cold, lonely hotel room, where the ghosts of my failure were ceaselessly haunting me. I needed this break. For the first time since the race had ended, I actually felt at peace. Almost. Hayden’s absorbing gaze was too intent for full relaxation; shivers that had nothing to do with my body’s adjustment to the blazing heat of the water were flashing across my skin.
“What?” I snapped, hoping to sever the connection, to diminish the pinpoints of excitement that were starting to work their way through me. Inch by inch. Ripple by ripple.
Hayden’s gaze shifted to the bubbling water before lifting to mine again. “Can I ask you a serious question?”
I was shocked. Our conversations had never gone much deeper than trading insults, and even though I was curious, instinct made me answer him with, “No.”
With a frown, he ignored my answer and asked me anyway. “Did you . . . did you feel it today . . . while we were racing?”
My heart started pounding in my chest. I knew exactly what he meant. That fire, that drive, that feeling that we were alone, even when we were surrounded by thousands of people. It had been the most intense race of my career because of that sensation, but I wasn’t about to admit that to him. I couldn’t. It would be like admitting weakness, and I couldn’t ever appear weak in front of this man; he’d pounce in an instant, ripping me to shreds. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I said you couldn’t ask me a question.”
He pursed his lips, annoyed, but then he leaned forward in the water. His sudden movement caused tiny waves to come my way, and I instinctually pulled back from them. The sensation that we were connected, even though we weren’t, was bad enough without him coming closer. “You didn’t feel that . . . I don’t know . . . that connection? Like it was just the two of us out there? You must have, since you made that crack about me ignoring everyone else and focusing only on you.”
He tilted his head and a water droplet rolled down his cheek and curved around his neck. Watching it made my toes curl. The intimate lighting out here was playing tricks on my senses, making him too appealing. But the mood-setting couldn’t alter his personality, so I focused all of my energy on remembering the fact that he was an asshole who could never seem to get my name right. Plus he raced for a despicable man who would do just about anything to see my father brought down.
“Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I indicated the swirling water between us. “I think you’ve been in here too long. Your brain cells are beginning to boil.” I was beginning to boil. I should leave . . .
Hayden smirked, then began sliding through the water toward me. As he cut into the frantic bubbles between us, my heart began shifting into overdrive. I should definitely leave. But Hayden’s gaze was locked on mine, holding me in place. I couldn’t look away. A familiar surge of adrenaline was building inside me, telling me that something incredible was about to happen.
On your mark…
“I don’t believe you.” His voice was low, and his eyes were boring holes all the way through my soul. I unintentionally sucked my lip into my mouth, and his penetrating gaze dropped to study the movement. God, what would his smoldering skin feel like against mine?
His eyes slowly shifted back to mine. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, and you can’t deny that competing against each other, one on one like that, pushed us both.” He stopped right beside me, and our legs touched under the water. His were warm, hard, unyielding, and I had the sudden horrible image of having them wrapped around me. Owning me, claiming me.
“I’ve never raced that well before, and I don’t think you have either. I’ve watched you practicing on the home track a few times, and I’ve noticed something. You worry when you ride, worry about all the people you might be letting down. I get that. But focusing on your fear will only hold you back.” Shock ran through me, temporarily icing the heat. How did he know I constantly stressed about the weight placed on me? And who did he worry about letting down?
Voice soft, he added, “But during the race, I could tell that you let all those expectations go. Because all you were focusing on was me. You raced better when I was out there with you, and I raced better when you were out there with me.” He shifted his position under the water, coming closer until his chest brushed against my arm, and it was like a bolt of electricity struck me. I was tingling all over, ready . . . wanting. How did he know these things? How could he see inside me so accurately?
Hayden’s gaze flicked over my face, alternating between my eyes and my mouth. He looked torn, like he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but then he gently placed his hand on my leg. While his eyes searched for approval or rejection, his fingers began sliding up my inner thigh, igniting me with passion, burning me with desire. My breath was suddenly coming fast and furious. Yes, touch me.
Hayden’s lips parted as he studied my every reaction, and I could see his chest rising and falling as his own breaths quickened. His palm was barely inching across my skin—I was going to explode soon if he didn’t move faster. The glorious anticipation of where his fingers might go was killing me. But then, with a pained look on his face, he stopped moving. Damn it, just do it. Feel me, touch me, take me . . . free me.
With obvious restraint, he slowly leaned forward and pressed his hot lips to my ear, making me shudder. “We’re magic together, Twenty-Two,” he breathed. “Just admit you need me . . . and we can take this up a notch.”
Need him? Take this up a notch? His audacity enraged me. “Get your hand off of me,” I seethed.
Hayden pulled back to study my face for a moment, then he lifted his hand from my thigh and retreated. Raising both hands from the water like he was surrendering, he told me, “Fine. Whatever you say, princess.” He swallowed a few times after he said it, as if he was trying to calm himself down.
Furious at him for going there, furious at myself for not stopping him sooner, I shot up out of the water. The steam lifting from my skin matched my mood, but that was nothing compared to the heat of Hayden’s eyes as he hungrily took in every inch of my dripping-wet body. Enjoy what you see, asshole, because this is the last time you’ll ever see it. Stepping from the tub, I grabbed my robe, tied it tight around my waist, and stormed off.